Bill sat in his cubicle at work, busy with his assignments. He looked at the clock on his computer noticing that it was 6:00pm. He loosened his tie and sat back in his chair. His cubicle was neat, showing no sign of personal touch. There was a simple order to his work area that seemed a bit generic. Other co-workers had pictures of wives, children, grandchildren, pets, or snapshots of vacations on their desks. Some had favorite plants, paper weights, or other small knick-knacks that showed their personalities and interests. But not Bill's cubicle. There was nothing of himself in the area he spent over forty-five hours a week. It was something that he never really thought about it.
Bill was twenty-five years old and had gotten this job out of college. His firm was DynaComp, a manufacturer of computer components for the auto industries. Bill was a quality control analyst and his duties were to go over quality test lab results and write up reports on them. Just before he had started the job, he was dumped by his girlfriend. Heartbroken, he threw himself into his work to avoid having to deal with it. His life soon became centered on work. He went to work, came home, watched a little TV and went to bed. Repeat. He went to work most weekends. His supervisor thought he was a hard working young man, and Bill had received a number of good raises.
His co-workers were worried about him. Bill never talked about his home life, or any hobbies he might have, not that he had any. He never seemed happy, or sad, just sort of there, going through the motions. It wasn't healthy they thought. Bill didn't think about it very much, even though he wasn't happy and took little pleasure in his job. He didn't hate it or anything, but he wasn't glad to be there. Work kept him busy and paid the bills.
Noticing that it was 6:00pm, he thought that it would soon be time to go home. Being Thursday, he had to stop at the store for groceries, and then do laundry.
"Hey, Bill," said Stan, his co-worker in the next cubicle. He had stopped by and poked his head into Bill's area. "A bunch of us are heading to Cassidy's for a couple of drinks. You interested?" Stan asked Bill this question several times a week. He was always trying to get Bill to go out and socialize. Bill always found some excuse not to go. Bill and Stan had gone to college together and had been close friends. They didn't do things together anymore.
"I'd like to, but I have a few more reports to do before I can go. Maybe next time..."
"Sure, no problem," said Stan. "If you change your mind, you can stop by later."
"Yeah, okay," said Bill. But he never did.
He didn't over hear Kathy, another co-worker say to Stan as they left. "You know Bill never bothers to go. Why do you keep asking him?"
"I don't know. Maybe I don't want to give up on him. Bill's in such a little box that he doesn't realize that he has no life. He took the break up of his last relationship pretty hard. It's like Bill's focusing everything into his job so that he doesn't have to think about the pain. He was a really interesting guy in college. Did you know that Bill was on the fencing team and loved to make remote controlled model airplanes and boats? He used to compete out at Ferney Park. And no one could out drink Bill. "
Kathy couldn't believe what she was hearing. Bill? No way. Bill wasn't that interesting. "You're making that up, Stan," she said as they stepped onto the elevator.
Stan pushed the first floor button. "No, I'm serious. His airplanes won most of the time too. He would spend weeks before a competition carefully building his plane or boat. Always built a new one each time. He would name them after one the Valkyries."
"The what?" asked Kathy.
"Valkyries, from Norse mythology. They were women spirits who chose the dead after a battle to go to Valhalla. That's where the heroes went. Bill was into all that stuff. I think it's one of the reasons he went into fencing, so he could be like the old Viking heroes, fighting for glory."
Kathy found this incredible. "That's really hard to believe, Stan. Bill seems so...so..."
"Plain? Ordinary?" Stan finished for her.
"Dull," she said.
Stan winced. "The truth hurts," he said. The elevator stopped and the doors opened. They stepped out to meet co-workers at the bar, the doors closing silently behind them.
Bill finished his report and looked at the clock. 7:30pm. Oh, well, guess I should get home, he said. Laundry doesn't do itself. He shut down his computer and left his cubicle. As he walked he could see into the areas of his co-workers. They all had pictures or other things showing any number of outside interests. Bill didn't care about that. He found it a bit distracting. One cubicle had lots of flowers and cards in it. Bill stopped and stared at the display. He remembered now. Lori Banks had broken her leg horseback riding, and her church and friends brought flowers and cards for her. They took turns driving her to work. Bill sighed and walked on.
He stopped at the store, bought his groceries (the same items he always bought), went home did laundry and went to bed. His apartment was always hosting different social activities for the tenants and left flyers at his door advertising the events. Bill always threw the papers out without looking at them. After laundry and a small dinner of microwaved macaroni and cheese, Bill went to bed.
The next day, Bill overheard Stan talking to another co-worker about him. The co-worker was asking if it was true that Bill had built model airplanes, and had been a genuinely interesting person. Stan affirmed that this was true and that he thought it a shame that after his break-up, Bill had pushed everything away to become a dull workaholic.
Bill moved off quickly so that he wouldn't be found listening to their conversation. What he heard was troubling to him, and he couldn't put it out of his mind. People thought he was uninteresting? Bill thought he was interesting enough. But the conversation nagged at him, forcing him to look at it more deeply. He had friends, and interests, and stuff. He tried to list these things, and kept coming up lacking. Stan was his friend, but Bill realized that he never did anything with him. Never went out for drinks, or movies, or anything, despite numerous invitations. He didn't know the other co-workers well enough to think of them as friends. That left interests. He had plenty, but when he tried to remember the last time he spent time on them, he kept going back several years to before he was dumped by Frieda. That thought stopped his introspection cold. He wasn't going there.
Yet throughout the morning, he found it harder and harder to keep his mind on his work. His mind kept drifting to the soft conversation he had overheard. It bothered him, and it always led him back to Frieda, which hurt. His thoughts kept going around and around until he couldn't stand it. He decided to go out for lunch, something he never did.
He left the office building and wandered around downtown awhile, aimlessly, barely noticing the warm summer air or the bright sun in the sky. He wasn't hungry and ended up in an office supply store. He needed some tape anyway, and he noticed earlier that he supply cabinet didn't have any. Bill picked up several rolls of scotch tape and some rubber cement. He used the stuff occasionally when he was putting together reports for meetings. In fact, they had a big meeting early on Monday morning. Some big wigs from upper management were doing department reviews. He and Stan had to give a presentation. Bill was working on items for transparencies, and Stan was going to add some items he had at home and take the whole thing to the copier's to have it all ready for Monday.
He left the store and wandered around some more, ending up in a city park, one by the river that flowed through town. He found a bench near the water and sat down to think. He didn't want to think of Frieda, but he forced himself to. It had been a long time since he had allowed himself to think of her. He had really loved her, but she had dumped him for some other guy. A rich lawyer at that. It was one of the worst things he had gone through. He had felt like a total loser, that his life had no meaning anymore, that he was worthless. He had just gotten a new job, a good one he had thought. But she wasn't satisfied with that. It still hurt, although not as much as he thought it would. After close examination, he honestly didn't feel that bad about it. It had been several years since the break-up and he had gone into automatic pilot about the whole thing, acting hurt when he really wasn't. The realization hit him hard and he found to his surprise that he had a grin on his face. A weight had been lifted from him.
"What am I doing?" he said out loud. He looked at his life and was shocked. Stan was right. His co-worker was right. He didn't have much of a life. He worked, ate and slept. He had no hobbies anymore, no outside interests. Look at his damn cubicle, blank and empty lacking in anything remotely resembling humanity. He used to make airplanes and boats! He used to fence and have friends! He felt like crying for the things he had left lying on the ground, unused, unloved. The things that had mattered to him had been forgotten. What was to be done? Could anything be done?
Just then, a young girl of about seven came skipping by clutching something in her hand. She was smiling and laughing, obviously excited about something she was going to do. Bill looked at her in wonder. He used to be like that, full of life, happy. He watched her as she passed him. Then she tripped and fell, falling on the thing she carried. Bill heard a heard a distinct crack. The girl pushed herself to her knees and started crying.
Bill immediately found himself getting up and moving to help the girl. He put an arm around her. "Are you okay?" he asked. "Let me help you."
The girl lifted up the crushed object to him. "It's broken!" she sobbed. The object was a miniature Viking ship, complete with a sail and oars, now smashed into several pieces. It was obviously very dear to her.
"I can fix it, if you like," said Bill, smiling at her, hoping to comfort her.
The girl looked doubtful, but clung to hope. "Y-you c-can?" she said between sobs.
"Sure I can," Bill said with as much confidence as he could muster. "I used to build these all the time." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the tape and rubber cement. "See, I have everything I need to fix your boat. Would you like me to try?"
The girl nodded. Bill smiled and helped her up. He gently took the boat from her and took it to the bench. He squatted down beside it so she could see what he was doing. Looking at the boat, Bill realized that it wasn't that badly damaged. He carefully taped it back together, using the rubber cement as a sealant to keep it water-tight. He worked quickly and expertly, and the girl stopped crying, seeing that Bill did in fact know what he was doing.
"Did you know that this is called a longboat and that Vikings used to ride in them when they traveled?" The girl nodded her head and Bill went on with his explanation. "They were fierce warriors and when they died in battle, the Valkyries would come and chose the heroes to be taken away to great glory. One Valkyrie was called Shield Bearer. How about we call your boat that? Shield Bearer is strong and is protected from harm. That way you don't have to worry about your boat being hurt again."
Bill held up the finished boat to her. It looked sea worthy despite the scotch tape. The little girl was delighted as she took her boat from Bill.
"Shield Bearer," she said. Then she dashed to the water and placed the boat in. Bill looked on with some trepidation, hoping he had done a good repair job. He breathed a sigh of relief as the girl jumped up and down with glee.
"It floats, it floats!" she cried. She looked up. "Mama, it's fixed." Then she went back to playing with her boat.
Bill looked up in surprise to see an attractive blond woman standing not too far from him. She had on a long blue dress and her hair, also long, was wound in a braid that fell down her back. Bill looked a bit sheepish. "I hope you don't mind. It was broken, and I used to build boats like that." He didn't want her to think he was some sort of molester or anything.
The woman shook her head slowly and looked at him steadily out of bright blue eyes. "I don't mind at all," she said. "It looks like you needed to be helped as much as she did." Bill noticed that her voice was soft and sweet and warmed something in his heart.
Bill blinked. "I guess I did. My name is Bill Peterson."
The woman smiled. "Marla Jaeger. Thank you for fixing Tanya's boat. It's her favorite toy and she was dying for good weather to come here to play with it."
"You are welcome." said Bill. He glanced at his watch. "I better get back to work. It's a good day for sailing." Marla nodded and smiled.
"I hear tomorrow will be just as good."
Bill smiled back and turned away. He noticed, as if for the first time the sound of the leaves in the trees, the river moving softly, the laughter of children and the songs of birds. The sun felt invigorating to him, and the breeze ruffled his hair as he walked. It was a fine day after all. It reminded Bill of the model airplane competitions he had entered in college. He found he missed building the planes and boats.
Bill didn't see Marla give him a thoughtful look as he went away, or her gaze as it lingered on his retreating figure. She smiled again and turned to go to her daughter, laughing by the river.
When he got back to work, he found he was behind schedule for the meeting on Monday. He barely managed to get his contribution done and to Stan by 5:00pm. Then he had several urgent reports to make that absolutely had to be done before Monday. An important customer put in a rush order for the quality testing. It was a detailed and demanding test and it took quite a bit of time to get written.
At 5:30pm, Stan stopped by. "Hey, Bill, you up for going to Cassidy's?"
"I'm afraid I have to finish these reports. They're due before Monday for that presentation."
Stan smiled understandingly, although Bill noticed that his eyes were troubled. Bill had never seen that in Stan's eyes before, but then, he hadn't looked much. Stan's voice, however, was light and companionable. "Okay, next time then." He left and headed for the elevators with other co-workers.
He didn't want to push me, thought Bill. He realized how patient Stan had been over these years. He felt bad about not spending time with his friend. He turned his attention back to the reports. He got them done by 6pm and automatically started on another assignment. He stopped himself. What was he doing? Suddenly he didn't want to spend another minute in here. He quickly shut down his computer and prepared to leave. As he stepped out of his cubicle, he noticed a package in Stan's area. It was the material he was supposed to have taken home. Stan had forgotten it.
I'd better bring it to him, thought Bill. They should still be at Cassidy's. He picked up the package and walked down the street to the Irish pub. It was noisy and smoky and there was a band playing wild Irish jigs and reels. Bill pushed through the crowd and found Stan and about five other co-workers sitting at a table enjoying beers.
Stan was surprised to see Bill, and was greatly relieved to have the materials for Monday.
"Bill, you saved me. I had completely forgotten about that. Say, would you like to stay for a beer."
"Well, I should be going-" Bill started to say, but stopped. "Actually, I'd love to."
His co-workers made room for him to sit, just as a waitress came by. He ordered a beer, and sat there feeling somewhat out of place.
"So, Bill," asked Kathy, "Stan tells me that you used to fence in college and make model airplanes and boats."
"That's right. I used to race them too." Bill then launched into a story of near mishap with one of his planes that had his co-workers laughing so hard that a few of them spit out their beer through their noses.
Bill found himself loosening up. Why hadn't he done this years ago? How had he forgotten to be who he was. He kept everyone amused with his stories of both fencing and airplanes.
Finally, it was time to go. Stan turned to Bill and said.
"It's good to have you back, Bill. Say, you want to come over for a cook-out tomorrow at my place?"
Bill smiled at his friend and thought about his day, especially about Marla and Tanya Jaeger. "Can we make that Sunday instead? Tomorrow's going to be a great day for sailing."